Another term is being added to the lexicon in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: quarantine brain. It takes many forms, from confusion and fogginess to limited executive functioning. Those who fall prey to it may find themselves unable to complete tasks, manage their time and routine, and make sound decisions. This occurs even if the person has no prior history with attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Some report a lack of motivation to get out of bed, let alone engage in their daily activities. What helps them is knowing that their boss, teachers, and family are counting on them to launch themselves into their day.

The brain is a reactive organ that responds to stimulus instantaneously. You get up in the middle of the night and stub your toe. Your toe sends a signal that the brain translates as pain. You immediately jump up and down, perhaps even cursing at your poor body part. Taking a moment to breathe and calm yourself and, as author and meditation teacher Stephen Levine said, “Send it mercy.” He eloquently expressed the impact of mercy over pain: “If there is a single definition of healing it is to enter with mercy and awareness those pains, mental and physical, from which we have withdrawn in judgment and dismay.

That advice could easily be applied in the situation that people worldwide are in, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. For a growing number of folks who don’t venture out of their homes unless they are required to go to their jobs or to go to the supermarket or pharmacy, there is a sense of captivity. Not specifically by government edicts but the disease itself.

Like most people, I choose to stay home. I am a therapist who offers telehealth sessions, so I am grateful that I can work from my dining room table. I have created a system that makes it easier to manage my regular work, as well as field calls from a hotline that our group practice is offering to the staff of the hospital that owns our company. In every call, whether from those on my caseload or one and done encounter via the hotline, I hear stories of additional stress brought about by the various aspects of this ongoing crisis that has no obvious endpoint.

Some of my clients work from home as they have for a long time. For others it is a newer experience (two months at this point). Some are on the front lines as medical professionals, food service workers, retail employees, police officers, sanitation workers, or delivery people. They explain in explicit detail what they need to do to help ensure their safety and that of those around them. They talk about the fear that arises when they leave home not knowing if they will be bringing an uninvited “hitchhiker” home with them. People wearing masks in public places is both a strange vision to behold and a sign of concern for them and their neighbors.

Home schooling their children brings with it joys and challenges. Being sequestered with their partner/spouse can likewise be joyful and challenging. Some couples are acknowledging improved communication and closeness and others, additional turmoil. Some had planned on splitting pre-coronavirus, and now those plans are on hold and they need to do their best to co-exist amicably under the same roof. Some have fears of losing loved ones and not having the ability to be with them at the end or being with supportive friends and family in the aftermath. Blended together there creates the perfect recipe for quarantine brain.

One of the aspects that I discovered myself is that there are times when I experience what I have come to refer to as “protective amnesia” by which I really do forget, even if but for a few moments, that all of this is really happening. It happens most often when I am taking a walk and gazing up at the brilliantly blue spring sky and filling my lungs with fresh, clean air. It may occur when I am driving, on the rare occasion I get behind the wheel and singing along to a lively song. For an instant, I am transported to a reality where I get to be with loved ones, hug friends and cuddle my now 3-month-old grandson. I attempt to fast forward, but reality as it is now is tugging on my ankle as it pulls me back to what is. It is like awakening from a nightmare only to find out that you are still in it.

This is a trauma response that the brain uses to keep us from falling too far down the rabbit hole. So many what ifs spiral through our minds, when what we need is certainty. Such a sense of isolation, particularly if you are living alone, when what we need is comfort. Lack of human physical contact denies us of our needs. According to psychologist Virginia Satir, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Not a difficult leap into the reality that there will be many people who suffer more intensely than they would if they had nurturing touch.

It mirrors the common response to trauma that includes:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Rapidly shifting emotions
  • Numbness/flat affect
  • Paralysis
  • Self-judgement for not handling it better

Quarantine brain brings with it both physical and mental exhaustion where sleep attempts to claim you in the midst of important tasks. More intense dreams are not uncommon as I share one recent nocturnal show here:

I dreamed I was working at a psychiatric hospital (not the one where I had worked for 12 years) that had mountains and streams on one side and an ocean on the other. I had just started the job and could not remember how to get to the unit and knew I was supposed to meet with a patient at a particular time.

I kept asking for directions and was sent all different meandering ways. Getting more confused, I ended up crossing over an icy stream, falling in and feeling as if I was sinking into it. The man who was guiding me helped me out and we continued on. I then ended up on the other side where the ocean was and walked on the beach to get into the building, which seemed more like a hotel than a hospital. I don’t think I ever found the right place.

I was then walking to my car and could not recall where I parked it. I reached for my purse and couldn’t find it either. It had my wallet, keys, and phone in it. I wondered how I would get into my car without my keys. Then I woke up. I know that much of it had to do with my forgetfulness and feeling lost since this worldwide chaos began. I know that water is about emotional flow.

As an antidote, I recommend first and foremost, self-compassion. Take time to nurture yourself through this unimaginable time. Remember that you have survived everything that has ever happened to you, so you have developed resiliency skills.

Reach out to family and friends. Reach into that calm, quiet place within you that knows you will get through this, too.